The Witches of Venice, with a score by Philip Glass and libretto by Beni Montresor, based on Montresor’s children’s book of the same title, was commissioned by Teatro alla Scala and premiered there in 1995. It’s a fairy tale, with elements common to most fairy tales, although it has a few quirks of its own.
The King and Queen of Venice are bemoaning the lack of an heir. Sure enough, two fairies appear from the Lagoon with a plant: if the King plants it in his garden, a child will be born. The King is not impressed and throws the plant out the window. A maid, doing some clean-up work in the yard, sticks the plant in the ground and, lo and behold! a little boy appears. The King, once again, is not impressed, and says that the boy will remain in the garden — and in fact, posts guards to make sure he stays in the garden. But the boy, understandably lonely, hears of a plant girl being held by the Witches, and determines to find her. So he makes a pigeon out of branches and flies off to the Witches’ palace. Along the way, he meets ghosts, goblins and other scary things — not to mention the Witches.
There is some benefit, I think, in being able to see this work performed, but it’s not required. It is, really, an opera-ballet: the on-stage action is mimed and danced, and not all the singers are actually part of it. What’s remarkable is the fit between Montresor’s book and Glass’ music — both are seemingly artless, very straightforward, with the unadorned quality so often found in fairy tales, but that masks a great deal of sophistication. I’ve never thought of Glass’ music as particularly simple, but there is at the core of it an essential simplicity that provides strong support for the rhythmic complexities and the rich, strong colors. In the same way, Montresor’s text is deceptive, building depth through connotation and association. There is an element of absurdity here, some broad comedy, and some delightful moments that can only be described as “camp.” There are also moments of truly affecting pathos, most notably in “The Plant-Boy’s Song,” which is not something that I would normally expect from Glass. The music overall is expansive, sometimes almost melodramatic, and Glass has set up a kind of circularity in the songs — and I should point out that the “opera” part is really a set of songs, not recitative broken by the occasional aria (there are even spoken sections) — that almost verges on leitmotiv. As for those colors, think music box, think carousel — there’s almost an amusement park feel to sections of this work. There’s something childlike about it, a core innocence that makes it more than a little appealing.
The Witches of Venice is a lot of fun, even if you can’t see it on stage. It’s a good idea to listen with the book in hand — the CD comes as part of a small, hardbound book, illustrated with Montresor’s quirky watercolors — because the songs represent interludes, and without the story, you’ll have no idea what’s going on. Not that you really need to, but I suspect you will want to.
(Orange Mountain Music, 2006)